YANUH-JAT, Israel — Nohad and Goolia Seif struggled on a recent day to make conversation with the constant stream of condolence callers at their home in this mountain village. It was their second week of mourning, but the elderly parents still seemed uncertain about how to view the recent death of their son.
They were clearly heartbroken over the loss of their beloved child, Zidan, a 30-year-old police officer killed after responding to a deadly attack at a Jerusalem synagogue last month. They were also proud: In death, he had become an Israeli hero.
But the national appreciation for their son comes with a bitter twist: Zidan Seif was not a Jewish Israeli, like most heroes in this country, but a follower of the Druze religion, an insular minority sect whose members are feeling increasingly sidelined in Israel.
Seif was the second Druze security officer to die in a terrorist attack in recent weeks. Their deaths came amid heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and were followed — insensitively, some say — with attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing to pass a law defining Israel as a Jewish state.
The proposed legislation, critics say, could undermine Israel’s democracy and leave its Arab minority — more than 20 percent of the country’s population of 8 million — feeling like second-class citizens. The Druze, who make up about 8 percent of the Arab population, also worry their rights will be eroded.
As they come to terms with their loss, the Seif family has received a string of VIP visitors, including rabbinic leaders, top police brass, politicians and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who described Seif with such words as “courage,” “heroism” and “sacrifice” in a eulogy at his funeral. But they have also watched the political debate with concern.
“The Jewish people have suffered as a people more than most. They know what it means to be a minority, therefore they need to protect the minorities among them,” said Mahmoud Seif, Zidan Seif’s great-uncle.
The bloodshed on Nov. 18 — when two Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem entered a synagogue and killed worshipers using meat cleavers, knives and a gun — shocked the nation. Seif’s death in the attack also cast a spotlight on Israel’s Druze community.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the country’s Druze — an esoteric, monotheistic religion that incorporates elements of all Abrahamic religions and several other philosophies — live in numerous villages dotted across northern Israel, from the Mediterranean coast across the Galilee Valley and up to the occupied Golan Heights. They have had a presence in the region for a thousand years, and communities are also found in Lebanon, Syria and parts of Jordan.
In Israel, most Druze are citizens, holding Israeli passports, speaking fluent Hebrew and fulfilling compulsory military service. Many later join the police force, prison or other security services. A handful have held seats in Israel’s parliament. Some Druze, mainly those who live in the Golan Heights, an area Israel captured from Syria in 1967, still proclaim allegiance to the Syrian government, although they hold Israeli residency cards.
But the Druze unemployment rate is higher than Jews’, and many Druze leaders complain that their towns are underdeveloped and that they are forced to build illegally — and therefore face government demolitions — because of the difficultly of obtaining construction permits.
Because the Druze speak Arabic, follow some Islamic practices and have Arabic-sounding names, Jewish Israelis often confuse the Druze with Israel’s mainly Muslim Arab minority. During periods of high tension between Israelis and Palestinians here, anti-Druze discrimination tends to spike.
In the days after Seif’s death, Israeli news media reported that two active Druze soldiers had been refused entry to a nightclub; the men claimed it was because of their Arabic-sounding names. Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, the Druze spiritual leader, condemned the incident and denounced the lack of Druze integration into Israeli society.
Last week, the government attempted to push through its Jewish state legislation, stirring more concerns among the Druze. Angry about the proposal coming so soon after Seif’s death, his brother spoke out harshly against the bill, telling Israel Radio that it would differentiate between Druze and Jewish blood. He said he would actively encourage Druze teens not to enlist in the army.
“The Druze community continually feels disappointed by the state. They do everything that is asked of them, but they never feel full equality,” said Rabah Halabi, a lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and an expert on the Druze in Israel.
Although the bill was contentious enough to contribute to the collapse of Israel’s coalition government this week, Halabi called the proposal — which, in its most extreme version, would remove Arabic as one of Israel’s official languages — a “slap in the face.”
“Young Druze feel betrayed by the state,” he said.
Halabi also noted that the long-standing loyalty of the Druze to Israel conflicts with their identity as Arabs, making them appear as traitors to the wider Arab public. Last month, before the synagogue attack, fighting broke out between Druze and Arab communities as tensions mounted in the mixed Arab and Druze village of Abu Sinan.
Concerned about their future in Israel, Druze leaders met with Netanyahu last week. He announced a far-reaching financial plan to boost their community.
“You are our very flesh. You are an organic part of Israeli society. Your heroic policemen and soldiers have fallen in order to defend the state and all its citizens, but we will defend your rights and your security,” Netanyahu told them.
Zidan Seif’s great-uncle, Mahmoud Seif, was at the meeting. He said his nephew’s death, discrimination and even the proposed legislation do little to deter his people’s continued commitment to Israel.
Sitting in his living room, surrounded by photos of him shaking hands with an array of Israeli and Arab dignitaries, including Israel’s seventh president, Ezer Weizman, and King Hussein of Jordan, Seif said: “We Druze can be the bridge of peace for this region, we have one hand ready to defend this country and another hand calling for peace.”
To Zidan Seif’s grieving father, his son was the perfect example of that.
“He saved the lives of innocent people. That is how we raised him. Hero is not a big enough word to describe him,” Seif’s father said. “We are proud of him, and with time the pain we are feeling will shrink, but our pride will continue to grow.”